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Fat Cats

Though not Bay natives, channel catfish are worth an angler’s time

Harrison Doyle with a meaty channel catfish.

Despite a firm New Year’s resolution to rise earlier during the hot summer months to take advantage of the cooler dawn hours when the rockfish are on the hunt, I once again failed to get out of bed and on the water until 8am. The day by then was already heating up and the striper bite a memory.
    Unwilling to brave the heat and the daytime crowds chumming, I decided to focus on white perch with ultra-light tackle since the tides would remain favorable until at least noon. I was only a little sorry I wouldn’t be tussling with some heavier adversaries. But surprises were in store for me that morning.
    I was casting along a rocky shoreline to the remnants of an old lengthy bulkhead that had succumbed to storm erosion and age. Submerged rotting wood attracts grass shrimp and small minnows to feed on the decaying timbers, and that attracts and holds white perch.
    Having already put two or three bulky white perch on ice and released another half-dozen lesser-sized scrappers, I was settling into a relaxed rhythm of casting to clearly visible areas near the more substantial bulkhead remains and enjoying the action. Then my spinner bait stopped dead from a heavy strike.
    Lifting my rod smartly and expecting another spirited tussle, I was met with a strong and determined run against my firmly set drag. For the first few seconds I dreamed of a state-record white perch. When the run continued into the distance, I began thinking of a hefty rockfish. The power and determination of a striper’s run was there, but not the speed, so eventually I had to cross a keeper rock off my list of possibilities.
    When the fish finally paused, I recovered some line. Almost immediately, it took off again. Trying to slow its progress stretched my six-pound mono dangerously close to failure. Eventually the fish paused, only to continue resisting with intermittent rushes in random directions.
    I took my time. When the fish made a rush anywhere near my direction, I applied as much pressure as I could to lead it closer. Then the beast started crossing, again and again, under my hull, using my own boat against me.
    I could do little to stop that tactic. It was only chance that kept my line away from my outboard. I was on borrowed time. At last, stressing my light five-foot spin rod till its cork creaked, I netted a fat and healthy 25-inch channel catfish.
    It was the first of three I would put in my cooler that morning, losing a fourth to my outboard.
    The most numerous catfish in North America, the channel cat’s wide popularity as a sport and table fish has made it the official state fish of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee. Channel cats have whiskers, deeply forked tails and golden brown flanks with small dark spots. It’s a species introduced to Maryland via the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers but becoming an increasingly appreciated addition to the Chesapeake’s seafood cornucopia.
    The Maryland record of 29 pounds 10 ounces is held by Kevin Kern at Mattawoman Creek, but the whiskered rowdies can reach up to 60 pounds. Channel cats are generally caught in the three-to-five-pound size on the Chesapeake, but their average size is likely to increase as they become more numerous.
    The Chester is the most highly regarded river for chasing catfish in this area, but cats are found with increasing frequency in all of the Chesapeake’s tributaries, particularly around laydowns (fallen trees) and derelict docks and pilings. They also show up in mainstem chum slicks — much to the surprise of those targeting rockfish.
    Cleaning these catfish for the table requires a different technique than most of our sport-fish, as all catfish need to be skinned rather than scaled. These fish produce thick, succulent and boneless fillets with little effort.